Life Coach

Peter L Nelson PhD

HRC & the Baboon Brain

Hillary Clinton's social signals are often misconstrued.
There’s been growing speculation as to why HRC has been so viciously vilified from the moment she stepped into the White House as the First Lady. In a Huffington Post piece that has been posted on FB, a psychoanalyst speculates why. I found his thoughts not altogether satisfying. So, as someone who has had careers in the neuro, social and psychological sciences, I would like to try to provide some insight into this conundrum.

Most of us have seen wildlife documentaries about our cousins—the primates. In their social organization baboons, for example, have fairly strict hierarchies for males and females and any behaviors that signal a break from what is expected brings swift retaliation. A male baboon occupying a status position below an alpha-male, must gesture subservience or he will be threatened. If he doesn’t act appropriately in short order, he will be attacked. Female baboons also have a hierarchy that signals to other females that each knows her place, with 'inappropriate' behavior being taken as a challenge to higher ranking females (and males, too), requiring immediate response.

These types of social relationships exist amongst all the great apes as well as us, the human ape. A version of that ‘baboon brain’, steeped in hierarchy and dominance, is wired into all of us. If we do not see the appropriate (expected) behavior in those we encounter socially, we become suspicious of them and quickly turn those not meeting our social expectations into outcasts…and so, I believe, it has been for Hillary.

I met Hillary at a friend’s wedding many years ago right around the time that she was going to graduate from Wellesley College. My friend and Hillary were close college friends and at the wedding reception Hillary seemed to be standing off to the side, somewhat disengaged from the group. My friend (the bride) came up to me and instructed me to pay some attention to Hillary and dance with her—which I dutifully did. I found her to be a pleasant, quiet and introverted person. We chatted a bit and the next time I saw her was on TV as our newly minted First Lady.

From my first meeting with her I was aware that Hillary did not ‘signal’ in what is considered a typical female style. It has been an observation of mine that highly intelligent, motivated, high achieving women often don’t manifest standard, expected signaling in their social interactions. They may use non-standard facial expressions, language and tone of voice that do not fit what we expect. When taken in the context of her obvious introversion, my experience of Hillary was of someone who does not send the expected non-verbal messages that are easily interpreted by others. Thus, she does not automatically activate the expected responses in the ‘baboon brains’ of those who encounter her. Of course, when one has direct interaction with such a person, our other capacities for knowing and evaluating social interactions can come into play as well, but, even then, such a person can easily be misinterpreted.

At a distance most people do not get the opportunity to have additional input about HRC, so the response of their ‘baboon brains’ easily dominates their perceptions and reactions, albeit unconsciously. Those responses, when the ‘signaling’ contradicts what we are wired to expect, are felt with a visceral certainty and the attributions made about the person sending them are usually negative. Since our brains have evolved to be suspicious of the unfamiliar (paranoid), it doesn’t take much for us to imagine that the unspecified ‘rustling’ in the ‘bushes’ might be a saber tooth tiger. Once this fear-generating projection process is set in motion, we can easily imagine harpies, devils and villains where there may be only a ‘mouse’ scratching around in the undergrowth. Without reliable empirical evidence, we do not really know to what our ‘baboon brains’ are alerting us—‘mouse’ or ‘tiger’.

What I’m suggesting is that Hillary often sets off the wrong cascade of signals in the brains of those (men and women) who see her at a distance that easily become projected paranoid ideation. These evoked thoughts often generate virulent and vilifying responses to what is actually unknown but vividly imagined to be dangerous. This isn’t to say that the Clintons haven’t engaged in some political dealings that we wish they hadn’t, but Hillary is still a far better choice than what else is on offer as a candidate for the highest office in the USA.

I also believe that if HRC was a man, the level of negative attribution would not be nearly so intense. The model we carry of what constitutes a ‘proper’ woman also arises from the projections of our ‘baboon brains’. In the primal knowing that emerges from our ancient wiring (designed to identify similarity), women find themselves under great pressure by both the male and the female hierarchies, giving them even less room than men to not conform to norms.